Thespis (/ˈθɛspɪs/; Greek: Θέσπις; fl. 6th century BC) of
Icaria (present-day Dionysos, Greece), according to certain Ancient
Greek sources and especially Aristotle, was the first person ever to
appear on stage as an actor playing a character in a play (instead of
speaking as him or herself). In other sources, he is said to have
introduced the first principal actor in addition to the chorus.
Thespis was a singer of dithyrambs (songs about stories from mythology
with choric refrains). He is credited with introducing a new style in
which one singer or actor performed the words of individual characters
in the stories, distinguishing between the characters with the aid of
This new style was called tragedy, and
Thespis was the most popular
exponent of it. Eventually, in 534 BC competitions to find the best
tragedy were instituted at the
City Dionysia in Athens, and Thespis
won the first documented competition. Capitalising on his success,
Thespis also invented theatrical touring; he would tour various
cities while carrying his costumes, masks and other props in a
1 Alleged works
3 See also
Titles of some plays have been attributed to Thespis. But most modern
scholars, following the suggestion of Diogenes Laërtius, consider
them to be forgeries, some forged by the philosopher Heraclides
Ponticus, others by or altered by Christian writers:
Contest of Pelias and Phorbas
Fragments (probably spurious) in A Nauck, Tragicorum graecorum
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It is implied that
Thespis invented acting in the Western world, and
that prior to his performances, no one had ever assumed the
resemblance of another person for the purpose of storytelling. In
Thespis is the first known actor in written plays. He may thus
have had a substantial role in changing the way stories were told and
inventing theatre as we know it today. In reverence to Thespis, actors
in the English-speaking part of the world have been referred to as
Thespis was the title character in an 1871 comic opera by W.S. Gilbert
and Arthur Sullivan, the first collaboration between the two men,
although the musical score has mostly been lost. The story involves
Thespis and his troupe of actors temporarily replacing the Gods of
Olympus, while the latter come down to earth to "mingle" with
Thespis is a 2014 UK film, produced by ACT 2 CAM.
A branch of the National
Theatre of Greece expressly instituted in
1939 to tour the country is named "The Wagon of Thespis" (Greek:
Άρμα Θέσπιδος, Árma Théspidos) in his honour.
A first season episode of the TV series Sports Night was named
"Thespis" and referenced him.
^ Buckham, Philip Wentworth,
Theatre of the Greeks, Cambridge :
J. Smith, 1827.
^ Horace, Ars Poetica 275-7
^ Diogenes Laertius, Book V, Heraclides, 92:"And Aristoxenus the
musician says, that he composed tragedies, and inscribed them with the
name of Thespis."
^ A Nauck,Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta (1887), page 832: "Thespidis
quaecumque feruntur ab impostoribus esse ficta vix est quod moneam, et
proditur hoc fraudis genere usus esse Heraclides
Ponticus......Heraclidis igitur crediderim esse fr.1-3; nam fr.4 non
dubito quin alteri post Christum saeculo debeatur."
^ A Nauck,Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta (1887), page 832-833.
^ "Libretto: "Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old"". The Gilbert and
Sullivan Archive. Retrieved 2017-08-18.
Gaster, Theodor, H., Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient
Near East, Henry Schuman Publishing, New York, 1950.